University alum Ben Fife spends his Friday nights at Necto, a local club, and Saturday nights at Ann Arbor restaurant the Aut Bar. But he’s not there as a patron, he’s there to educate people about human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
“I just try to make sure people know where they can go to get tested, what they can do to reduce the risk of contracting or transmitting HIV,” he said. “I try to be a community resource within these spaces on issues concerning and surrounding HIV.”
Fife, an outreach worker with the HIV/AIDS Resource Center in Ypsilanti, primarily does outreach to men who have sex with men and spends over 10 hours a week talking with people about safer sex.
“Especially for young gay and bisexual men, its important for them to know that they can have fulfilling lives and not contract HIV, that coming out does not mean folks have to get this,” he said. “They have to be aware of the risks and how it affects the community – and realize we need to figure out a way to stem the tide of new infections.”
But he said he does not think the issue boils down to an issue of gay or straight identity. Rather, he thinks it is important for everyone to recognize the realities of the disease and the difficulties people living with the disease face.
“I think it’s especially important for gay men to be aware of this epidemic because it affects our community realistically in a way that’s extremely devastating but at the same time I’m really troubled when other communities don’t identify themselves as potentially affected because of their perceived distance from the gay community or because of their idea that it might not be realistic for them,” he said.
A study conducted in several major U.S. cities by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 5,719 at dance clubs, bars and other locations frequented by gay or bisexual men aged 15 to 29 and reported that of the 573 who tested HIV positive, 440, 77 percent, said they did not know they were infected with the virus.
But many people are affected nationwide, statistics show. The number of cumulative AIDS cases reported to the CDC is 793,026, and as of June 2001, there were 130,965 cases of AIDS reported in individuals ages 20-29.
Mark Peterson, outreach coordinator of the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project, said in Michigan alone there are approximately 15,550 people living with HIV and AIDS, with a majority of those cases being in southeastern Michigan.
And he said more cases are becoming apparent in younger people. The median age, he said, is starting to drop, indicating that individuals are contracting the disease at a younger age.
“Where we were talking about people in their late 20s and 30s now we’re moving down that age gap to people in their mid-20s,” Peterson said.
He added that few people get tested soon after contracting the disease and are more likely to wait to get tested until they show some type of symptom.
“What we know about this infection is that it could be a matter of five to ten years (between the time of infection and when symptoms start to show), so if we’re seeing people in their late 20s dealing with symptoms that probably means we’re talking about people who got infected in their early 20s or late teens,” Peterson said.
With that in mind, he said, educating young people is very important, and making sure the messages are tailored to each audience is also a necessity.
“Each person can cross the path of HIV in their own way, as far as the specific risks each group has to look at,” he said, adding that he hopes continuing the discussion on HIV will have positive long-lasting results.
“It’s all based on behavior and if we could do a good job of continuing to talk to people about what’s happening for them and designing prevention messages that work specifically for them, then hopefully we’ll decrease the number of HIV cases in Michigan.”
Kelly Garrett, Program Coordinator for the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs, hopes to continue the conversations through providing educational programming, particularly to the LGBT community. The programs, she said, though focused on the LGBT community, are open to everyone as a resource.
She stressed the need to recognize HIV as an issue everyone needs to be worried about and said though there has been a rise in the infection levels among gay men, it is important that they not be targeted as the only group affected by the disease.
“I think it would be easy to go back to naming this as a gay issue, a gay disease,” she said. “But I think most people know that this is something that affects everyone.”
Garrett said she would urge people to get tested and learn how to protect themselves, as opposed to subscribing to the notion that it just couldn’t happen to them.
“It’s just a common characteristic of people in their late teens and early 20s – they feel like nothing bad is going to happen to them and might even deny that they’re at risk,” she said.
She added that she feels people are taking more chances because they see HIV as a treatable disease, though that isn’t really the case. Rather, she said, it can be manageable, but individuals should focus their attention on prevention, on protecting themselves and educating themselves to avoid contracting the disease.
“It is of concern – it seems like young people are a little less concerned than they should be,” she said. “…There are a lot of people who think they’re not at risk when they are.”